Research Handbooks in Law and Economics series
Edited by Lloyd R. Cohen and Joshua D. Wright
Chapter 3: Economic Perspectives on Marriage: Causes, Consequences, and Public Policy
Robert I. Lerman* Marriage is central to the economic and social life of the United States, despite the delays in marriage, high rates of divorce, and high proportions of children born to unmarried parents. By their early 30s, 70 percent of Americans have married and nearly 60 percent are currently married.1 Only 16 percent of 40–45-year-olds have never married. While marriage is a nearly universal experience, media coverage of marriage often focuses on issues affecting a small subset of the population, especially the legality of same-sex marriages.2 Although the home for the academic study of marriage has long been in sociology departments and among demographers, economists have increasingly produced theoretical and empirical analyses of marriage. The number of economics journal articles with the “marriage, marital dissolution, and family structure” descriptor jumped from 81 in the 1990–94 period to 393 in the 2005–09 period.3 Economists have used standard economics tools to study marriage, including trade, contracting, game theory, externalities, human capital theory, financial risks, economic incentives built into the tax and transfer systems, search theory, and supply, demand and equilibrium in marriage markets. The theoretical contributions that helped stimulate the economics profession to conduct rigorous research on marriage were Gary Becker’s 1973 and 1974 articles on “A Theory of Marriage” and his 1981 book, A Treatise on the Family. Becker emphasized the gains from marriage that result from trade in which one partner may have a comparative advantage in the labor market, while the other has a comparative...
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